The University of Minnesota is expected to give final approval Friday to a $166 million Athletes Village that officials say is essential for the Golden Gophers to compete successfully in the Big Ten.
The project, which includes state-of-the-art practice and training facilities for football and basketball, passed a Board of Regents committee without dissent on Thursday, and is scheduled for a final vote Friday morning.
So far, the U has raised less than half the cost — about $76.5 million — from donors. Its original goal was to have 80 percent of the money in hand before breaking ground.
But President Eric Kaler and Dean Johnson, the board’s chairman, said they were eager to proceed with the project, already delayed for months over concerns about cost and gender-equity issues.
The U plans to borrow the bulk of the funds, $89.5 million, through long-term debt that will be repaid by the athletics department.
“We want to break ground before it freezes this year,” Kaler said Thursday. “We’re really committed to moving this forward.”
Johnson noted that the U has lagged behind other Big Ten schools in upgrading its sports facilities. “I think we as a university owe it to our student athletes,” he said. “We clearly have third-rate facilities. We’re not competitive at all.”
The Athletes Village has been a top priority of football coach Jerry Kill, who has said the current practice and training centers undermine recruiting efforts because they are overcrowded and outdated.
“It will be tremendous for the athletics department,” Kill said. “It’s not just football. This school needs it, period.”
Beth Goetz, the interim athletic director, said she is pleased the project is nearing approval. “We couldn’t be more thrilled by what this facility will mean to all of our athletes,” she said.
The Athletes Village will include three new buildings: two for football and a third for men’s and women’s basketball, as well as an academic center and dining facilities for all student athletes.
Kaler said it was important to note that the athletics department and donations would cover all of the costs. “These resources are not coming from tuition,” he said. “They’re not coming from state [funds].” He said fundraising for the project will continue.
Gender equity complaint
The regents’ vote had been delayed for months, in part because of concerns that the new Athletes Village could run afoul of federal Title IX gender-equity laws. The plan calls for demolishing the track facilities used by nearly half the U’s female athletes to make way for facilities dominated by male athletes, which prompted a federal complaint alleging gender discrimination. The U.S. Department of Education is investigating.
Last month, the U announced it would build a new, competitive track on the East Bank campus in Minneapolis, hoping to resolve the gender-equity concern. The specific site has not been chosen, but the U says it has reserved $20 million in “debt capacity” to cover those costs and assure Title IX compliance.
Kaler said initial costs of the Athletes Village also were a concern, and that the price had been pared down as a result.
Most of the project’s space is devoted to football and basketball. The design includes a hall of fame, hydrotherapy, auditorium, strength and conditioning space, sports medicine, recruiting rooms and offices for the two high-profile sports.
Students in all the U’s intercollegiate sports, about 725 athletes in all, will have access to a new “Center for Excellence,” which will include nutrition and dining facilities, classrooms and tutoring space. Goetz noted the project would benefit all Gophers athletes by relieving congestion in the older buildings, where all teams now compete for practice space.
Aiming at recruits
Athletics department officials have been pushing for the project for more than two years, contending the old practice facilities fall short of the gleaming athletic facilities at competing universities. They point out that the Gibson-Nagurski Football Practice Complex, which opened in 1985, has a leaky roof that drips rain and insulation, and that the team’s “training table,” or dining facility, is located in a large entryway where food is heated on Bunsen burners.
Kill has complained frequently that threadbare facilities hurt attempts to recruit top talent. Two years ago, an analyst for the Big Ten Network, Gerry DiNardo, called Minnesota’s facilities the worst in the Big Ten.
The university created a website, called nothingshortofgreatness.com, to help raise funds for the project.
The new buildings will be located near the current practice facilities, Bierman Field and Gibson-Nagurski, on the East Bank of the campus.
The original plan for the Athletics Village, unveiled in 2013, called for an even more ambitious $190 million project, including upgrading existing facilities for other team sports. But earlier this year, former athletic director Norwood Teague proposed “fast-tracking” the football and basketball facilities, as well as the academic center.
Staff writers Joe Christensen and Amelia Rayno contributed to this report.